Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Report from Special Session on Diversity at Austin AAS

The CSWA helped sponsor a Special Session entitled "Increasing Diversity in Your Department" at the 219th AAS Meeting in Austin last week. We had four terrific speakers for this session, and the CSWA will post their slides on our website soon. For now, I'll highlight some key points from their talks.
  • Caroline Simpson chaired the session, and spoke about "Best Practices in Hiring: Addressing Unconscious Bias." Her talk was a recap of Abby Stewart's talk from the 2011 winter AAS Meeting on unconscious bias, but it's a message well worth repeating. The main points of Dr. Simpson's talk were that
    • increased diversity leads to increased excellence,
    • we all think about the world in terms of schemas that lead to unconscious biases,
    • we can fight our unconscious biases by becoming aware of them
    • and we should be sure to use objective criteria to evaluate job candidates.
    The University of Michigan ADVANCE program has a handy toolkit available for use.
  • Andrew West spoke about "Tools for Recruiting a Diverse Applicant Pool," and his talk focused on recruitment of under-represented minorities (URMs). Key points from Dr. West's talk were
    • unfortunately, there's no magic bullet
    • fortunately, most techniques for recruiting URMs help everyone
    • the numbers of URMs earning PhDs in astronomy is really small, like <10 data-blogger-escaped-li="" data-blogger-escaped-per="" data-blogger-escaped-year="">the biggest drop off in URMs in physics and astronomy is after the first year in college
    • historically black small colleges produce 55% of the BS and BA physics degrees, so establishing relationships with those colleges is a good way to keep URMs in the pipeline
    • directly ask people to apply for jobs, and post ads broadly

  • Van Dixon spoke about "Recruitment and Retenion of LGBTIQ Astronomers." In case you are wondering, LGBTIQ = Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Questioning. The main points for making workplaces more friendly to LGBTIQ astronomers were
    • make an explicit commitment to inclusion in policies
    • be aware that benefits such as health insurance for same-sex partners are taxable, which you can offset by "grossing up" wages
    • remove discriminatory health insurance exclusions for transgendered people
    • make policies friendly to non-traditional families, like including adoption and domestic partnerships in leave benefits
    • advertise your inclusive policies
    Finally, Dr. Dixon announced and announced that a Working group on GLBTIQ Equity (WGLE) has just been formally approved by the AAS Council. Huzzah!
  • Caty Pilachowski spoke about "Getting to Family-Friendly in Your Department." The main point of her talk was that it's one thing to have a written policy of family-friendliness, but another to have a family-friendly department culture that is supportive of work-life balance. Ways to create a culture of family-friendliness include
    • make families visible by recognizing family milestones, including families in department events, and setting up a department family bulletin board
    • recognize that families include kids, parents, pets, etc.
    • bring your kids and pets to work
    • offer help to others in need
    • leave visible copies of Status and Spectrum around
    Dr. Pilachowski acknowledged that cultural change is hard, and must be done incrementally, but in the end it benefits everyone.
All in all in was a good session. We had about 60 people in attendance, many of whom were early-career. I would have liked to see a room full of department chairs, since they are the ones who are in the best positions to make changes. I wish these sessions didn't feel so much like preaching to the choir, and the CSWA is constantly trying to come up with better ideas for bringing in a wider audience. Ideas, anyone? -Hannah

3 comments:

Chanda @ Disordered Cosmos said...

I wasn't there, but I heard one complaint from someone (while the session was happening) that all the panelists were white. Why was that?

Hannah said...

Chanda - I was the one who organized the session. In looking for a speaker for the talk on diversity, I wrote to the CSMA looking for speaker suggestions. As it happened, the first few suggested speakers were too busy or unable to come to the conference. There was also some fear of over-burdening some of the minorities in the astronomy community with always having to bear the torch for the cause, precisely because there are so few of them. I wish we could have had a non-white speaker on the panel, but I was unfortunately unable to get it to work out that way.

Chanda @ Disordered Cosmos said...

I see where you're coming from. The complaint that I heard was that the people on the panel did not speak to minority experiences as well as they could have. But it is hard because we do get overburdened. Tricky problem to solve.